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Fats and Your Child

As with carbohydrates in recent years, fats have been wrongly accused of being "bad." Too much fat can be a bad thing, but fat is an essential nutrient and some are definitely better than others. Certain kinds of fat are actually good for us and are an important part of a healthy diet.

About Fat

Fats are nutrients in food that the body uses to build nerve tissue (including the brain and nerves) and hormones. The body also uses fat as fuel. If fats eaten aren't burned as energy or used as building blocks, they're stored by the body in fat cells. This is the body's way of thinking ahead: By saving fat for future use, the body plans for times when food might be scarce.

Fat gives food flavor and texture, but it's also high in calories and excess amounts of fatty foods can cause many health problems.

For kids and teens, desserts and snacks (including potato chips, chocolate, cakes, doughnuts, pastries, and cookies) are a significant source of fat. Kids also get fat from whole-milk products and high-fat meats, such as bacon, hot dogs, and non-lean red meat.

Of course, fast-food and takeout meals tend to have more fat than home cooking; and in restaurants, fried dishes are the highest in fat content. Fat also often "hides" in foods in the form of creamy, cheesy, or buttery sauces or dressings.

Still, fat is an important part of a healthy diet when kids eat the right kinds in recommended amounts.

Why Some Fats Are Healthy

Adequate fat intake is essential to growth and development. Young kids, especially, need a certain amount of fat in their diets to help the brain and nervous system develop correctly.

Besides supplying fuel for the body, fats:

  • aid in the absorption of some vitamins (vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat soluble, meaning they can only be absorbed if there's fat in a person's diet)
  • are the building blocks of hormones
  • are necessary for insulating all nervous system tissues in the body
  • help people feel full, so they're less likely to eat as much

Fat is a great source of energy but has twice the amount of calories compared with the same amount of carbohydrates or protein. For example, 1 gram of fat provides 9 calories, whereas 1 gram of both carbohydrates and protein provide 4 calories each.

Low-fat diets have been touted for years, but some experts think the low-fat/no-fat revolution may have gone too far, overlooking the complex nature of fats and how they work in the body.

Types of Fats

To help you figure out fats, here's a look at the three major types:

1. Unsaturated fats: Found in plant foods and fish, these fats are seen as neutral or even beneficial to heart health. The types of unsaturated fats are:

  • monounsaturated, found in avocados and olive, peanut, and canola oils
  • polyunsaturated, found in most vegetable oils
  • omega-3 fatty acids, a type of polyunsaturated fat found in oily fish like tuna and salmon

2. Saturated fats: Found in meat and other animal products, such as butter, shortening, lard, cheese, and milk (except skim or nonfat), saturated fats are also in palm and coconut oils, which are often used in commercial baked goods. Eating too much saturated fat can raise blood cholesterol levels and increase the risk of heart disease.

3. Trans fats: Found in margarine (especially the sticks), commercial snack foods and baked goods, and some commercially fried foods, trans fats (also called trans fatty acids) are created when vegetable oils are hydrogenated (meaning that hydrogen atoms are added to the fat molecule so they remain solid at room temperature).

Like saturated fats, trans fats can raise cholesterol and increase the risk of heart disease. Food manufacturers must list trans fats on food labels, but may also refer to them as "partially hydrogenated" oils on the ingredient list.

Looking at Labels

When shopping for food and reading labels, it's important to understand that kids may eat a portion that is larger than the serving size on the label. For example, a bag of corn chips might list 12 chips as a serving size. But kids might easily eat two or three times that amount. So be sure to pay attention to serving sizes.

When it comes to fat, labels can say many things. Low-fat, reduced fat, light (or lite), and fat-free are common terms on food packages. The government has strict rules about the use of two of these phrases. By law:

  • fat-free foods can contain no more than 0.5 grams of fat per serving
  • low-fat foods may contain 3 grams of fat or less per serving

Reduced-fat and light (lite) foods are a little trickier and you may need to do some supermarket sleuthing. Light (lite) and reduced-fat foods may still be high in fat. The requirement for a food to be labeled light (lite) is that it must contain 50% less fat or one third fewer calories per serving than the regular version of that food.

Foods labeled reduced fat must contain 25% less fat per serving than the regular version. But if the regular version of a particular food was high in fat to begin with, a 25% to 50% reduction may not lower the fat content enough to make it a smart snacking choice. For example, the original version of a brand of peanut butter contains 16 grams of fat and the reduced fat version contains 12 grams. That's still a lot of fat!

And don't expect the label to tell all. The percentage of fat in a food isn't always listed on the label. But it is easy to calculate. Divide the number of calories from fat by the number of total calories and multiply by 100. For example, if a 300-calorie food has 60 calories from fat, you divide 60 by 300 and then multiply by 100. The result shows that that food gets 20% of its calories from fat.

How Much Fat Should Kids Get?

Although some people may think it's wise to try to cut fat altogether or excessively limit it, it's crucial for fat to stay a part of a child's diet.

For young kids, especially, fat and cholesterol play important roles in brain development. And for those under 2 years old, fat should not be restricted. Children ages 1 to 3 years should eat a varied diet with about 30% to 35% of calories coming from fat. For ages 4 to 18 years, the recommendations are about 25% to 35% of calories.

Fit Fats and Your Family

Although eating adequate amounts of fat is an important part of a healthy diet, it is true that many kids today do eat too much of it. And excess fat in a child's diet may lead to weight gain. Kids who carry excess weight into adulthood have greater risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes.

Here are some ways to keep fat intake within the recommended ranges:

  • Serve naturally low-fat foods, such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and fish, as well as low-fat dairy products.
  • Choose healthier, unsaturated fats when cooking and reduce the amount you use.
  • When cooking meat, fish, or poultry, opt for broiling, grilling, or roasting (on a rack). These methods allow the fat to drip away during cooking, which cuts down on calories, too. Frying, on the other hand, adds fat. Remove skin from poultry.
  • Beware of reduced fat and low-fat claims. These products often have more sugar added and just as many calories.
  • Pack school lunches and meals for family outings instead of going to fast-food restaurants or relying on your child to make healthy choices in the school cafeteria.
  • When dining out, help kids make balanced choices that don't include large amounts of fat. For example, make a green salad part of the order and use low-fat dressing on the side. Encourage choosing mustard instead of mayonnaise on sandwiches. Choose baked, grilled, or steamed dishes rather than fried. Limit visits to fast food restaurants.

The most effective way to teach kids healthy eating habits is to set a good example yourself. Make nutritious food a priority in your life by teaching your kids how to prepare healthy meals and snacks. Establishing sensible eating habits, choosing foods wisely, and exercising regularly are the keys to a healthy lifestyle.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: February 2012